Voices Wednesday, July 15, 2015 - 05:30
Image: Wikipedia commons, forchange.com by Manuraj Shanmugasundaram India, today, finds herself at cross-roads on a “life or death” issue. News reports indicate that Yakub Memon will be hanged on July 30. If this happens, it will be the third execution after India broke the self-imposed quasi-moratorium three years ago. Ironically, the deaths of Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru have breathed new life in to the debate around death penalty and its place in our society. The Supreme Court of India, in the case of Shatrugan Chauhan v/s Union of India (2014), issued elaborate guidelines to safeguard the interest of death row convicts. This judgement was a turning point for death penalty jurisprudence and subsequently, allowed the sentences of 15 death row convicts to be commuted to life sentence. Keeping in mind the evolving jurisprudence and modern human rights theories, the Law Commission of India has undertaken an in-depth review of death penalty in our law statutes. Pursuant to this, the Law Commission of India held a national consultation gathering views of political parties, civil society and legal professionals on death penalty. Political parties which were represented include Indian National Congress, Aam Admi Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Bharatiya Janata Party. While the final report containing the recommendations of the Law Commission is awaited, it is important to understand the key questions surrounding the issue. Death and discrimination A number of studies have discovered a strong socio-economic bias in 'awarding' verdicts of capital punishment. A recent report published by the Asian Centre for Human Rights as well as initial findings from the National Law University's 'Death Penalty Research Project' have pointed out that a majority of death row convicts are from backward castes, Dalits and minorities, and nearly all of them came from poor families. There can be no doubt in anybody's mind that the application of death penalty is riddled with discrimination and prejudice. Deterrent or moral detriment? Another common misconception is that death penalty is an effective deterrent. Decades of research studies by the National Research Council of the United States have proved inconclusive on this point but it has not stopped it from being widely used by death penalty retentionists. One of the primary reasons in support of acceptance of death penalty is the ineffectiveness of our legal system. No one can disagree with the fact that policing shortage, investigation errors and judicial delays must be reduced, but arguing for death penalty as an alternative is like trying to fix one mistake with a bigger mistake. Can it be abolished? This brings us to the final question: Does death penalty enjoy popular support and can it be abolished? In 2013, a survey of 20,000 respondents conducted by Lok-Niti and published in The Hindu showed that 40% were in favour of abolition, whereas 30% were in favour of retention and another 30% unsure. That nearly 70% of our population need to be persuaded to support abolition is a challenge but it is not impossible. History tells us why. In October 1981, when the French Government considered abolishing death penalty, 63% of French people supported the retention of death penalty. However, the Government led by President Francois Mitterand went ahead on a conviction that it was the right thing to do.  Following this, a greater awareness of human rights jurisprudence has prevailed over the French people and it is a matter of record that no Government since has reinstated the death penalty in France. More than 25 years later, in 2007, the French Parliament went a step further to amend its Constitution to read that 'No one shall be condemned to death penalty'.    Image: Flickr/WCADP Popular support vs. unpopular decision In recent times, we have witnessed popular opposition being over-ruled by progressive legislations or judicial decisions. A good example is the recent case of Obergefell vs. Hodges, decided by the Supreme Court of USA, which has legalized same-sex marriages in that country. In my own state of Tamil Nadu in 2008, a DMK government notification allowed for issuing separate ration cards and required colleges to provide admission under a separate third gender category for 'transgender persons'. This was done when there was little or no popular support for the welfare of this community. But, the state government went ahead and set up a Transgender Welfare Board with representatives from the community. Following this, we were the first state to conduct a census of transgender persons and devise dedicated welfare schemes. In April 2014, after a long legal struggle for equal rights and respect for this community, the Supreme Court of India – in the National Legal Services Authority v/s Union of India case - recognized transgender as a third gender. The State of Tamil Nadu had preceded this landmark decision of the Supreme Court by nearly 6 years. We did not wait for popular support to build around this issue.  The sole intent was to improve the lives of a marginalized and excluded group of persons on the basis of the universal human rights principles and the fundamentals of the Indian Constitution. I would go as far as saying that an approach not dissimilar to this is required in the case of the abolishing death penalty as well.  We would do well to remember here that nearly 160 years ago, Abraham Lincoln risked his political career and fought a war so that America could abolish slavery, and so that an entire race of people would be treated as equals. We have much less to do. The DMK party has held a consistent abolitionist position. In our party's national conference held on 15 February 2014, we passed a unanimous resolution demanding the abolition of death penalty. The same commitment was also part of our election manifesto for the 2014 General Elections. DMK President Kalaignar Karunanidhi has repeatedly spoken in favour of abolishing death penalty.  The party believes that it is not the crime that must decide the punishment but the society that must decide how it wants to treat its own members. The practice of death penalty is arbitrary and inhuman. It goes against established international humanitarian principles. Whether it is Kasab or Perarivalan or Memon, death penalty is irreversible, unjust and has no place in a civilized society. (The writer is a spokesperson for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability for the same.  
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